Clonmacnoise – 2 round towers for the price of 1

Recently, I posted about round towers so I thought I’d write something about the ones I have visited so far. Some of my memories might be a bit shaky but when did that ever stop me? 😀 I shall begin with the first round tower I ever clapped eyes on. O’Rourke’s Tower in Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly.

Clonmacnoise Co Offaly,Ireland  Early Christian Site

The remains of the monastic settlement of Clonmacnoise are located about 11km south of Athlone. It sits on the banks of the River Shannon, in an area that was of great strategic importance at the time.  It was originally founded in the mid 6th century by St. Ciarán and went on to become a significant monastery. Some manuscripts, including the Annals of Tighernach (11th century) and Book of the Dun Cow (12th century), were written here. It wasn’t just literature which was a feature of life here. The Clonmacnoise Crozier was unearthed when Temple Ciarán (reputed to be St. Ciarán’s final resting place) was being excavated. It can now be seen in the National Museum in Dublin. Or on a postage stamp (remember those?). There are numerous early Christian carved stone slabs on display too.

Clonmacnoise was a settlement of some importance, growing to include a cathedral,  seven churches, three high crosses and two round towers. The monastery was raided numerous times by the native Irish, the Vikings and the Normans. It began to fall into decline around the 12th century, partly because Athlone was starting to rise in prominence by this stage. It was finally destroyed and closed in 1552. Just about all of the monastery remains in ruin, apart from Temple Connor which was restored by the Church of Ireland and continues to be used occasionally. These days, Clonmacnoise is a popular tourist attraction. If navigating the winding roads of west Offaly aren’t for you, you can explore the place without getting out of your chair.  Google Streetview has paid a visit.

clonmacnoise_from_shannon

Photo taken on a boat out on the river

O’Rourke’s Tower

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O’Rourke’s Tower with some humans for scale

O’Rourke’s Tower was built in the 12th century. It is recorded as having being completed in 1124AD. It is built from ashlar limestone masonry (in other words, the limestone has been cut into square blocks) and it is thought that the master mason had knowledge about European tower building techniques. Sadly, the tower is no longer as tall as it originally was. It is estimated that ⅓ of its original height is now missing. A lightning strike is the most likely reason for this. The stonework on the last 3 metres of the tower is thought to have been added at a later date – if you look you can see for yourself where this newer masonry is. The 8 windows at the top are unusual and it is unlikely the original tower had as many on the bell floor.

The doorway of the tower faces towards the cathedral which is to the south-west. The cathedral is the oldest dated stone church in Ireland and is recorded as having been completed in 909AD. If you’re still reading this and are taking a note of the dates, you might have noticed that cathedral is quite a bit older than the tower. In Brian Lalor’s excellent The Irish Round Tower book, he wonders was there a timber predecessor to the tower? These towers were belfries after all…

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 19.3m
Diameter at Base: 5.62m
Height at Door-Sill: 3.5m
Date: 12th Century (Annals references for 1124 and 1135)

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

 

McCarthy’s Tower

mccarthys_tower
McCarthy’s Tower and Temple Finghin

Clonmacnoise is a little unusual in that there is a second round tower on-site. This tower is shorter than O’Rourke’s Tower and is attached to the remains of Temple Finghin. It stands 16.76m high with a diameter at the base of 3.97m. It is believed to have been built in the mid to late 12th century. Because this is an engaged tower, it doesn’t have the usual features found on free-standing towers. Its doorway is at ground level and would have been accessed from the interior of the church. It has some small windows in the drum but none on the top bell floor.

mccarthys_tower_doorway
Entrance into the tower

In 1864, the church attached to the tower was vandalised by “by a person from Birr on a ‘pleasure party’ to the Seven Churches (Clonmacnoise)”. They were prosecuted and the proceeds from this were used to repair the roof of the tower. Unusually, the tower’s roof has a herringbone design, though this is difficult to see in any photos I have. Which is yet another reason for me to pay a visit – it has been a while 🙂

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 16.76m
Diameter at Base: 3.97m
Height at Door-Sill: N/A
Suggested Date: Mid to late 12th Century

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

Is there anything else worth looking at while you’re there?

Absolutely. Because Clonmacnoise was such a significant site, there was a lot going on here. The three high crosses are well worth a look. Even the North Cross which is mostly missing. The original crosses were taken indoors to preserve them and are now on display in the visitor centre. There are exact replicas of them standing in their original locations outside. There are also plenty of ruins and old Christian burial slabs dotted around the place. The Nun’s church, as seen in the collage below this, is 1km away but worth the short walk/drive.

clonmacnoise_castle

Beside the monastery are the rather precarious looking remains of Clonmacnoise Castle. It is now fenced off but it’s still worth taking a look at. If only to try and figure out what is holding it up. The interior of it can be seen in the 1971 film Flight of the Doves. But unless you really really like Oirish films, I recommend you steer clear.

clonmacnoise_collage

Getting there

Clonmacnoise is easy to find. It is well signposted and there is a car park outside the visitor centre. It is run by the Office of Public Works (OPW). More info here

Round Towers: The Start of an Occasional Series

I’ve been a bit of a tower enthusiast for as long as I can remember. As a small child, no journey in my parents’ car was complete without me spotting water towers and excitedly pointing them out to them. Sigmund Freud would’ve had a field day 😀 Anyway, I came to my senses and decided that water towers were rather underwhelming and really not worth seeking out. Instead, I turned my attention to round towers.

These are somewhat enigmatic, narrow, cylindrical stone towers which were built almost 1,000 years ago mostly in Ireland. Just three of them exist abroad; one in the Isle of Man, two in Scotland.  Even at that, it’s likely there was an Irish hand or two involved it their construction. The first one I ever saw was O’Rourke’s Tower in Clonmacnoise and it made quite an impression (“What happened to the roof? Where’s the door?”). When I moved into my teens, I led my cousin and her friends on an expedition to explore the nearby round tower in Swords. These towers also inspired me to make a collage at primary school but more of that later.

ORourkes_tower_1
O’Rourke’s Tower, Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly
cloigtheach
Cloigtheach/Round Tower as depicted on an old Ordnance Survey map

The clue to what an Irish round tower is lies in the Irish name for them. Cloigtheach means “bell house” or belfry. Indeed, some of these towers still stand beside the churches for which they were built.

It is believed that 80(ish) of them were built between the 10th and 13th centuries. There are references to some of them in ancient writings, such as the Irish Annals. The first reference to one dates back to 950AD when the Vikings burned one in Slane, Co. Meath. The latest one was in Annaghdown Co. Galway in 1238. Both these towers have sadly vanished without a trace. As of 2020, there are 74 of them which can be visited. Some are in very good condition and there are still two of them which can be can be climbed (Kilkenny and Kildare). The tower on Devenish Island, Co. Fermanagh has also been climbable but it is unclear whether it is still the case. If anybody knows for sure and lets me know, I will happily amend this post. The others are in various states of repair; going from towers which still have their roofs to those which barely exist at all.

Despite the towers being labelled as Cloigtheachs, my primary school teachers didn’t get the memo. Being told that the towers were used as safe refuges for the monks and their treasures when marauding Vikings came-a-raiding fired my imagination. Aged 10 or 11, I made a collage of a daring monastery raid using felt and some other scraps of cloth which were lying was lying around in the classroom. The collage is long gone of course but you will be delighted to know that I’ve replicated it using modern technology. Sadly, drawing apps don’t give you the same smell of glue as 1980s art classes. What the teachers didn’t tell us was that (a) round towers can’t actually hold many people/things and (b) they’re just about the worst place you could hide out in from raiders. They are eminently burnable. Given the shape of the towers and the wooden floors that were in them, they had the potential to become deadly furnaces if they were set on fire. And it appears that that is what happened sometimes. There are records of towers being set on fire and people dying in them. The King of Fermanagh met his end in the tower on Devenish Island in County Fermanagh. The son of the King of Tara was murdered in Kells. The tower at Dysert O’Dea in County Clare was burned at some point. Nobody knows when or why but there is still a crack in its wall.

viking raid
A Viking raid on a fictional monastery. Not based on true events.

No two round towers are alike. There are variations in the building materials used, the style of the doors and windows and in the width and height of them. Still, they all follow a certain formula. They’re slender, stone towers which stand up to 40 metres in height. Their doorways tend to be located 2-3 meters from the ground and can only be accessed by a ladder. The windows are higher up in the tower and are narrow slits. Most of the towers are/were topped with a conical shaped roof. The doors of the towers face the west doorway of the churches they were a bell-tower for. And despite their heights, none of the towers appear to have had particularly deep foundations. Despite this, most of them are still standing

ebc16a21d0abed2d804357b9221c94a4

The image on the left isn’t my handwork (I think you can see who the real artist is here…) but it gives a good idea of what the interior of the towers was like. I found it on Pinterest so if by some chance someone knows who drew it, I will happily give credit for it.

Each tower had a basement and then a series of floors going from the doorway right up to the top of the building. It is thought that the floors were connected by ladders. Having climbed the tower in Kilkenny, I can confirm that this isn’t for the faint-hearted. There wasn’t always much room inside the towers either so it’s debatable how many things were ever stored in there.

In the coming weeks, I shall write a little about the round towers I have visited. Here is a selection of them. Being a biased Offaly woman, I plan to start where the madness all began – Clonmacnoise.

round_tower_collage